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puzzle-1705364_1280It’s not as easy as it looks. If you’ve ever tried to homebrew a game system, you’ve probably come to this conclusion. Systems often have fiddly bits that interact in complicated ways. Often problems rear their ugly head only during play. Some issues can be easily fixed. Maybe two skills can be combined, or one roll can be used instead of two. However, a clear solution doesn’t present itself for every problem.

In this article, I’ll detail some lingering question I still have with my group’s own homebrew system. Don’t worry, we won’t go into the minutiae of dice mechanics or exhaustive skill lists. Rather, we’ll look at some “big picture” issues. Your homebrew system will look very different than ours, but I’m betting you’ll hit some of the same questions.


I generally run a fantasy game. My homebrew system was designed to be a “go to” system for different genres. Both character generation and task resolution had to be simple. Since we’d only be using this system occasionally, complicated rules had to be avoided. And it had to use regular six-sided dice. The hope was that would make it easier for non-gamers to participate. So far the system has seen use for Star Wars and Star Trek


One outstanding question is the depth of the skill list. How much is too much? For example, our homebrew game has two main social skills, LEADERSHIP and CON. LEADERSHIP covers most legitimate social interactions, while CON covers instances of lying, deceit, and cheating. However, skills such as CHARM or SEDUCE could easily be added to the list. It’s difficult to know when to stop, or whether these kinds of skills should be just lumped into one PERSONALITY attribute.

The same goes for physical skills. Is one FITNESS skill enough, or do we also need RUNNING, SWIMMING, or CLIMBING? Another option is to have broad attributes, and then allow each character to have one or two specialties for themselves.

Special or species abilities pose problems too. How do we keep one character from becoming too powerful in comparison to the others? Is limiting how often abilities (like the Vulcan Neck Pinch) can be used enough? Should extra points be given to human characters to compensate for this? Right now, I’m siding with limiting how often these kinds of abilities can be used, but I’m not married to the idea. We just go for coffee.


In terms of combat, the biggest outstanding question for me involves initiative. Side initiative has the advantage of being simple. There is one roll, modified by the leader’s, well, LEADERSHIP skill. Players can act in any order they decide. This promotes discussion to decide who should go first. However, many players are used to individual initiative, This can be accommodated by having everyone roll and add a combat or reaction modifier. I’m not sure which is best at this point.

Another combat issue is whether to roll for damage, or to use static damage. Right now we use static damage based on a success level. For example, a full success does full damage, while a partial success does half damage. (The concept of full and partial successes was codged from Dungeon World). This eliminates the situation in which a player rolls well to hit, but then only rolls a 1 or 2 for damage. However, it also takes a little bit of the excitement away from damage, making it very predictable.


I haven’t figured this one out either. The major questions are: how fast should characters advance, and how should we keep track of advancement. If characters advance too fast, it can be difficult to keep them challenged. Too slow, they might feel like they aren’t progressing at all. The other question is how to keep track of experience. Do we use an experience point system, or just advance every so many sessions? There are other options too, such as rolling after a session to see if relevant skills improve or not.


No system is perfect. Just because there are a few lingering concerns doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your system as it is. If it simplifies your life and stays (mostly) out of the way, then keep rolling with it. I suspect no system is ever really completed, and sometimes you have to just pick one option and go with it.

To end on a personal note, one of the most influential systems I’ve read is FUDGE [1]. It helped me understand the choices that a designer has to make in a clear and memorable way. Even if you don’t like their mechanics, you could do far worse than giving FUDGE a read.

How about you? What lingering concerns do you still have with your homebrew or hacked game? Let us know below.

2 Comments (Open | Close)


#1 Comment By Roxysteve On January 17, 2017 @ 12:38 pm

Interesting article, and one that illuminates the current fad for “old school” RPGs.

Two links useful for your readers: [2] (the fudge rules)
and: [3] (the Fudge community website)

I started with White Box D&D (actually White Box EPT if we are being pedantic, and my friends and I actually started with a homebrew RPG based on a misleading article about the new game from America called “Dungeons and Dragons” that looked nothing like D&D but was more fun than I don’t know what) and so have seen and understood the move away from overly simplistic systems to ridiculously overly-complex ones and back again. There’s something to be said for both approaches (except that old school dungeons are meaninglessly arbitrary in challenge and threat levels – see most LotFP dungeons for examples of loony insta-kill traps – and good riddance).

Right now I’m playing and enjoying D&D 5e mostly because it strips back the bookwork and encourages a play style that gets back to what is important – the imagination – and de-emphasizes the unimportant high-granularity “simulation” rules – none of which come close to being simulations in any way, shape or form unless one is dealing with Mr Jackson’s fine (but bonkers) range of RPG products.

I also run games extensively from the Savage Worlds settings and while that rules system has a few shortcomings to does attempt to strip back the book-keeping and emphasize the adventure. After a few games of 5e I’m convinced there may be too many skills in the SW character build too, but stripping them down runs the risk of a bloom of Knowledge (stripped-out skill) to compensate and then we have D&D 3.5. Not that there’s anything wrong with that 8o)

One thing that slightly complicates things (until people get used to it) that might be worth a try in your system is the idea that high initiative gets to choose whether to go earlier or later than low initiative. Obviously this assumes that you have some sort of individual initiative determination. The mechanic is best described as “everyone starts on hold except lowest initiative holder, and the order is re-assessed each action”. So if four people have initiatives 1,2,3,4 and four is best, 1 goes first unless someone else wants to go instead, in which case the highest usurper goes. Assuming 1 went, the assessment is re-done and 2 goes unless 3 and/or 4 want to go before her or him. And so on and so forth. It actually plays very quickly once everyone understands the way it works.

For things that might require two different attributes (eg jumping a newly-yawning chasm in an earthquake) I’d suggest averaging two stats (eg Strength and Dexterity rounded whichever way the GM thinks is best) and rolling the result. If your system doesn’t have pure strength and dexterity determinants then you’ll need to translate of course.

As for damage, I’m of the school of thought that says that if you have a fixed component, adding a small variable one is more fun. So if your sword delivers (say) fixed damage of 4 points, a coin flip of 0-1 extra points is more fun. If your problem is with damage being large face-count dice (eg 1d8) introducing arbitrary levels of hurt at odds with the success level of the hit, another approach might be to factor the damage as two or more die rolls of lower face-count dice (eg 2D4). Also there’s the issue of strength-based damage bonuses.

Do you know I’ve never understood the logic of Dex-based missile damage bonuses? Some sort of Archery skill makes more sense to me, at the risk of countering your article’s theme of “less is best”.

Anyway, thanks for the article.

Nice one, John.

#2 Comment By John Fredericks On January 21, 2017 @ 12:59 pm

Roxysteve, thanks for the comment. Lotta good suggestions in there and I appreciate them. When I get back to looking at updating the system, I will be coming back to your comments for thoughts.

#3 Pingback By Sporadic Saturday Sweetness: 2017-01-21 ← Ravenous Role Playing On January 22, 2017 @ 12:05 am